“He was always losing umbrellas.” Mr. Hamble’s Bear
So much of Margery Sharp’s work is undeservedly out of print. Mr. Hamble’s Bear is one of her short stories that deserves a fresh circulation. It can be found online, fairly easily, in the collected works The Lost Chapel Picnic.
A lonely second hand furniture dealer–Mr. Hamble–buys a large stuffed bear and ends up loaning it out for increasingly high profile social events. The bear’s social life and popularity soon begins to spiral out of control. He becomes the toast of London–and, in the process, breaks Mr. Hamble’s heart.
In the world of anthropomorphism and the stories we loved as children, (and adults if we will admit it) few can boast the success of Margery Sharp. Her fame in this regard—with the Rescuers series and those intrepid famous mice—would come late in her writing career, and late in her life, after she had carved out a successful career in adult fiction, plays and short stories.
Yet, years before the Rescuers came to print, Margery Sharp was inspired to write a quirky story of tender charm involving a stuffed bear in a Homberg hat, a succession of lost umbrellas, and a sentimental old man.
When it comes to memorable bear stories, Winnie the Pooh comes first to mind, then Paddington Bear; perhaps even Baloo from the Rudyard Kipling stories. And Margery Sharp was aware, even in 1942 when Mr. Hamble’s Bear first came to print, that writing animal stories could be the death knell for a ‘serious’ writing career.
‘Do you mind,’ [Mr. Hamble] asked, ‘if I tell you a rather remarkable story?’
“It’s an animal story,” he said, rather apologetically.
Mr. Hamble adopts an apologetic tone for much of his story, as he explains it to his sympathetic listener, Mr. Sherrard. This shy deference to ‘an animal story’ could come from many sources. One quite close to home, for Sharp, was the experience of A.A. Milne. It is a matter of indifference to many readers that A.A. Milne was an accomplished writer of other styles. For Milne, this was a problem. He expressed himself ‘greatly annoyed’ by this unforeseen success. The adorable bear he created happily sucked up his writing life as though it were a big jar of honey. So while Winnie the Pooh brought him fame, it came at a great cost.
Mr. Hamble’s own bear of his creation takes a cue from the fame of Winnie the Pooh. (There are also indications that Sharp’s early work Fanfare for Tin Trumpets, was inspired in part by Milne’s experiences as a young man trying to ‘find himself’ as a writer, but that is the stuff of another post.)
In the late 1920’s, aspiring writer Margery Sharp became a part of the Punch magazine writing family. She contributed several poems (‘triolets’) and short stories, not all of which were published by Punch.
A.A. Milne had been an editor and contributor for Punch magazine since the early 1900’s. He would later marry the god-daughter of Owen Seaman, who took over for Milne as editor in 1906.
Owen Seaman and Margery Sharp had many exchanges of correspondence during the late 1920’s, as he encouraged her to keep writing and submitting her efforts.
The runaway success of Milne’s Pooh stories had an effect on Sharp. As she writes in her youthful second novel, Fanfare for Tin Trumpets, with the somewhat autobiographical tone,
‘There were in London at this time countless trios of young women living together in top-floor flats and addressing one another as Pooh, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin. Many of them earned their own living, others painted book-ends, or attended courses at the University; but the ones Henry knew were all going to teach.’
Indeed, just before this time Margery Sharp was writing of, a poem named ‘Teddy Bear” appeared in the Punch magazine, issue of February, 1924. The author was A.A. Milne.
Not yet known as Pooh, this was the lovable bear’s first appearance in print. Later, the same bear appeared in the London Evening News on Christmas Eve, 1925, in a story called “The Wrong Sort Of Bees“.
Here is an excerpt from ‘Teddy Bear’:
‘Next morning (nose to window-pane)
The doubt occurred to him again.
One question hammered in his head:
“Is he alive or is he dead?”
Thus, nose to pane, he pondered; but
The lattice window, loosely shut,
Swung open. With one startled “Oh!”
Our Teddy disappeared below.
There happened to be passing by
A plump man with a twinkling eye,
Who, seeing Teddy in the street,
Raised him politely on his feet,
And murmured kindly in his ear
Soft words of comfort and of cheer:
“Well, well!” “Allow me!” “Not at all.”
“Tut-tut!” A very nasty fall.”
Our Teddy answered not a word;
It’s doubtful if he even heard.
Our bear could only look and look:
The stout man in the picture-book!
That “handsome” King – could this be he,
This man of adiposity?
“Impossible,” he thought. “But still,
No harm in asking. Yes, I will!”
“Are you,” he said, “by any chance
His Majesty the King of France?”
The other answered, “I am that,”
Bowed stiffly, and removed his hat;
Then said, “Excuse me,” with an air
“But is it Mr. Edward Bear?”
And Teddy, bending very low,
Replied politely, “Even so!”
They stood beneath the window there,
The King and Mr. Edward Bear,
And, handsome, if a trifle fat,
Talked carelessly of this and that …
Then said His Majesty, “Well, well,
I must get on,” and rang the bell.
“Your bear, I think,” he smiled. “Good-day!”
And turned, and went upon his way.’
‘This man of adiposity’, the plump man with the twinkling eye, is re-created by Sharp in her story as Mr. Hamble. He is a rotund, lonely old man, and, as mentioned, a second hand dealer who, on a whim, buys a large stuffed bear at auction. It turns into something of a rescue and a new friendship, for, as he unfolds his incredible tale to his sober male listener, Mr. Sherrard, he explains apologetically,
“I was a good deal confused in all my relations with the larger quadrupeds.”
The stuffed bear–who stands upright on two legs–never has a name. He is not actually anthropomorphized in the story, but only in the mind of gentle Mr. Hamble, and thus—in a brilliant sleight of hand performed by the author—the bear becomes a person in our minds, too.
Mr. Hamble outfits his new friend with ‘a small Homberg hat’, and an ‘Inverness style mackintosh cape’— a fashion hybrid, if you will, of Sherlock Holmes and Paddington Bear.
While the stuffed bear becomes a personality, in the end it is stout Mr. Hamble who is the oddly lovable ‘bear’ that touches our heart.
“I gave him,” said Mr. Hamble, almost shyly, “a lot of affection. One doesn’t like to be fooled in one’s affections.”
Sherrard took a moment or two to think this over. “If it’s any consolation,” he said at last, “I don’t believe your case is unique. A good many men have a bear of sorts.”
“A good many men have a bear of sorts…”
Or perhaps a volleyball.
Remember Wilson? If you were one who was embarrassingly and utterly devastated when Tom Hanks in Castaway hurled his bloodied volleyball friend, Wilson, to the wide open sea, you might be touched by Mr. Hamble’s Bear.
From a review from The Anniston Star, written in 1973:
‘Thank heaven for writers like Margery Sharp…! Here’s an author who still believes in the importance of a plot whose characters act like human beings rather than fugitives from reality….[interesting, as then the reviewer goes on to praise Mr. Hamble’s Bear as] …’a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek account of a merchant’s devotion to the stuffed animal who decorates his doorway.’
Publishing history: The first copyright on this story is 1939. It was first published (to my knowledge) under the title ‘Very Much Alive‘, in 1942, by Liberty Library Corporation, Macfadden Publishing. They apparently owned the rights of publication, for when the short story was re-published in 1973, a brief note expresses ‘the author is grateful to Liberty Library Corporation for permission to reprint the story…’. As noted above, the story was also published in Lilliput magazine in 1944.
It would be interesting to know who owns the copyright now, as this would be a wonderful story to reprint with illustrations. As far as I know there are no illustrations for this.